Revd Canon Mandy Ford
Isaiah 5. 1–7; Philippians 3. 4b–14; Matthew 21. 33–46
Let me sing a love song for my beloved A love song about a place, Jerusalem the Golden, Rule Britannia Scotland the Brave Advance, Australia Fair My Homeland America the Beautiful Judah, God’s vineyard.
For the people of God at the time of Isaiah, the land was proof that they were God’s chosen people. They inhabited country which had been promised to them, and they loved the land as we all love the land to which we feel we belong.
A few weeks ago, I was driving down the A303, the road which takes you South and West down through Wiltshire and Somerset to Dorset. It is the road which takes me “home” although I haven’t lived in Dorset since I was a child. I love the particular curve of the hills, the slate blue Autumn sky and the long shadows cast by hedges and sheep. It is a landscape that speaks to me of welcome, and of God. When the clouds break and shafts of golden light break over the hills, it is heaven here.
The people of God remembered the mount of Zion in the same way, the precise contours of the Kidron valley, the light playing over the olive groves, the vineyard terraces carved from the Judean hills.
Once, those views were an icon of God’s presence with them. You could look at the mountain and sense God’s presence. The scriptures were rich with reminders of how their ancestors had met God on mountains and of his promise to dwell with them on this mountain.
But the mountain was no longer an icon, it had become an idol. They built a temple and believed that God inhabited it, but everything they did, all their behaviour, was a denial of God’s presence. They forgot to share the fruits of the vineyards and the olive groves with the poorest in the community. The people who should have been a fruitful blessing to one another became bitter and rotten.
And when they could not see God, when God’s image was no longer present to them, God wept.
God allowed the mountain to be over-run by invaders.
God allowed the walls of the temple to be broken down.
God reminded his people that they could not contain holiness, or constrain it, whether with a wall or a frame or a label.
As you can see/may have noticed, we have a new icon in the cathedral today. From a distance it may look familiar, as it is a version of the famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. The original shows three figures, with broadly European features and colouring, representing both the angels entertained unawares by Abraham, and the three figures of God. We are invited to join them at the table.
But when you have a chance to look more closely at this version, by Meg Wroe, you will see that the figures have dark faces and Caribbean features. This icon was painted so that the people of a diverse church, could not only imagine themselves being invited to the table, but could see the divine in one another’s faces. They could see one another as icons of God.
The icon was one of a number which were displayed in the cathedral yesterday as part of the commemoration of Black History Month.
During the day we were invited to consider our identity and our culture. Many of the conversations centred around stories of location, of place, and memories of childhood. The mango tree where the village gathered on a Sunday to eat, the porch where grandma sat on the swing to tell stories, the road home from school and the smell of Sunday dinner.
We talked about the tangible reminders of those places and people: the photographs, grandma’s sugar bowl, mum’s prayer book, dad’s wedding ring. These are the icons that recall, the story, the people and the inheritance of love, of family, of belonging.
We know what it feels like to love a place and the icons of that place. We may also know what it feels like to have those icons destroyed, lost or stolen. Britain’s art galleries and museums are full of holy things stolen, looted or bought to be displayed without thought to their value, their connection, their stories.
How often do we miss the holiness of an object or a place because we don’t understand the language, the story, or the way God has worked with that community, those people, that culture?
One of the powerful things about the story of Paul, converted to the way of Jesus, was that he understood the culture of the Jewish people because he was a Jew. He knew what was important to them, he himself had been circumcised, he followed the laws of Moses, he knew the scripture and the culture. When he encountered the living Jesus, those things fell away. He saw that some of the things that he had considered icons, images of God, were simply idols, false gods, false ideas, that could be left behind.
But, Paul had the wisdom and the sensitivity to know that the old ways could still lead people to God, and to value the culture which had raised him, while his mind and heart were opened to all manner of new possibilities.
Those possibilities were embodied in Jesus, who came to break down the barriers which kept holiness behind walls in the temple, which kept holiness behind national boundaries, which kept holiness for special days and special people.
When Jesus paints the picture of the careless tenants failing to nurture the vineyard, the Pharisees and priests knew that their nation, the vineyard of God, should be protected and cared for. They fail to recognize, just like the earlier generation against whom Isaiah ranted, that they were the very people who had failed to see the truth of the icon of the land, who had failed to recognize God’s presence with them, who had turned the icon into an idol.
Jesus tells them that not only will the barriers be broken down, the walls tumble, the whole structure be destroyed, but that from the fragments a new Kingdom will be built up.
In Jesus all barriers are broken down, all the defining lines, all the cultural markers, are reconfigured. In Christ we become all one, brothers and sisters in baptism, in which every difference becomes a blessing in which we learn to see God in a new way, to hear praise on the guitar, the organ and the calimba, to sing praise in Shona and in Latin, to recognize God in faces which look very different from our own.
But first, because we are human and we need to know who we are, we have to find our place in the world, value the stories that made us and the people who nurtured us, recognize and celebrate the iconic places and things which revealed God to us.
What we were challenged to do yesterday, was to think about how we could then begin to give them away, to share them with others. This is what Jesus did with his humanity, he gave it away. Only in his broken body could he be shared so that everyone could have a taste of his incredible love.
When we can take the fragments that matter to us; the stories, the pictures, the places, the music, the songs and the people, and share them, then we are truly being the body of Christ in the world.